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A Muslim employee who claims he was fired after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks because of his religion has shown enough evidence to keep his lawsuit alive, a federal judge has ruled. Judge Harold Baer Jr. of the Southern District of New York found that Muhamed Pjetrovic’s suit can survive a motion for summary judgment because he presented evidence that Merrill Lynch and an electrical services company fired him on the pretext that he was a security risk and had made disruptive, upsetting comments about the attacks. Following the destruction of the World Trade Center, thousands of Merrill Lynch employees were moved from the adjacent World Financial Center to the company’s data processing center on Washington Street in lower Manhattan. On Sept. 13, Pjetrovic argued with a co-worker who stated that Muslims were certainly involved in the terror attacks. Pjetrovic denies responding that there were several groups that could have been involved, including Chinese, Russians and Jews. He also denies telling another colleague in a separate argument that Jews or the United States government, possibly through the CIA, could have been responsible. These altercations were reported to Pjetrovic’s foreman at Knight Electrical Services, Richard Vigliotti, who later learned that Pjetrovic downloaded information about assault rifles and submachine guns at a Merrill Lynch computer. After Vigliotti reported this information to his superior, the superior and a second official met with Pjetrovic on Sept. 18 and told him he was fired. Pjetrovic filed suit claiming he had been terminated because of his religion. An employee of Knight and other electrical contractors at Merrill Lynch since 1986, Pjetrovic converted to Islam in 1997, wore a kufi or knit skullcap on the job, prayed with other Muslims five times a day, and engaged in ceremonial washing in the electrical shop sink. This last practice allegedly earned him a tirade from site manager Tony Orlando. Orlando is also accused of embellishing reports about an unnamed employee (later revealed to be Pjetrovic) who engaged in disruptive behavior. This employee argued with others about the attacks and said words to the effect that the destruction of the twin towers meant “we were being punished, we had to be punished, God was punishing us.” Orlando, it was also charged, played a key role in getting Pjetrovic fired. SUPERVISOR’S ‘ANIMUS’ Orlando’s “discriminatory animus,” Baer said in his ruling, is “significant given his ability to terminate Pjetrovic or, at the very least, influence the decision.” In its motion for summary judgment in Pjetrovic v. Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc., 03 Civ. 6605, Merrill offered two legitimate non-discriminatory grounds for firing Pjetrovic — that he was a security risk because a fellow electrician had reported his downloading of information about weapons and that Pjetrovic’s comments about Jews and the CIA made him a disruptive force at Washington Street. Those reasons were a pretext, Pjetrovic answered. At least for the purposes of considering the summary judgment motion, Baer agreed. “First, at a threshold level, it is not clear whether Merrill Lynch even considered the downloaded materials before the decision to terminate Pjetrovic,” he said. “Second, Orlando stated that he never considered Pjetrovic a security risk before or after September 14.” The judge noted that corporate security did not obtain and remove the materials until Sept. 19 and never conducted any investigation into the materials. “In fact, the materials that posed a threat were never copied and the location of the materials is unknown to this day,” he said. “If the materials were such a threat, why did it take the company five days to obtain and, perhaps more importantly, report the matter to an appropriate law enforcement agency?” Third, Baer said, Merrill Lynch “failed to follow standard procedure in arriving at its decision to terminate Pjetrovic.” Fourth, similar materials had been downloaded, and left in plain view on a computer screen, weeks before Sept. 11, with no objections made, he said. Finally, Pjetrovic was treated differently from another “similarly situated employee” because both he and the fellow employee had a habit of leaving gun-related material, such as Guns & Ammo and American Rifleman, in the break room for all to see before Sept. 11. “Alone, each of the five instances could be perceived as an anomaly or a result of the chaotic situation that resulted from the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11,” the judge said. “Together, however, these instances suggest that the legitimate, non-discriminatory justification for Pjetrovic’s termination was a pretext.” Yasser Helal and Robert Perry represented Pjetrovic. Eve Rachel Markewich of Blank Rome represented Merrill Lynch. Harvey N. Goldstein of Schneider Goldstein Bloomberg represented Knight Electrical Services.

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